An immovable obstacle to action on climate change


If you had to pick one company in America as the ultimate corporate villain, you might be hard pressed to find a better candidate than ExxonMobil. At a time of soaring petrol prices and growing public anger over the cost of filling up cars and trucks, ExxonMobil is not only making money hand over fist at an increasing rate - it is actually making more money than any other oil company in the world.

The company's top officers and stockholders are, naturally, delighted. But just about everyone else these days seems to be hopping mad. The company was successfully sued last year by petrol station owners who alleged they were being overcharged.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, spit blood at the very mention of the name ExxonMobil for a variety of reasons - the company's willingness to spend millions of dollars to refute the significance or even the existence of global warming, and the role of energy companies in exacerbating it; its extraordinary lobbying, more energetic than any of its rivals', to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration; and its continuing refusal to make good on its full compensation payments to the victims of the 1988 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska.

Watchdogs of good corporate governance have been raising eyebrows for years at the compensation collected by ExxonMobil's top officers. Lee Raymond has been a particular object of public opprobrium for some time. Last November, he testified before Congress that America's soaring petrol prices were caused by "global supply and demand" and promised that ExxonMobil was assuming its share of the pain. "We're all in this together," he told congressmen. That, though, was before it emerged that ExxonMobil made a record-breaking $36bn (£19bn) in profits in 2005, a 40 per cent increase over the previous year

The recent sharp spike in petrol prices - now well over $3 a gallon, compared with well under $2 at the start of the Bush administration - has unleashed a political hurricane and played a major role in hammering President Bush's approval ratings.

The issue is also likely to play a prominent role in November's mid-term elections. Already, one Senate candidate, the Tennessee Democrat Harold Ford, has put out television adverts blaming the Republicans for allowing the oil companies to get away with murder. Mr Raymond's retirement package, he said, was something "you and I paid for".

In New York state, an ardent campaign is under way to break the company's monopoly hold on petrol stations along a stretch of road known as the Thruway. Eric Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defence Council, a leading environmental lobbying group, justified the initiative, saying: "ExxonMobil has gone out of its way time and again to distinguish itself from its competitors as the most anti-environmental oil company."

Indeed, the company has financed about 40 organisations dedicated to debunking global warming, starting in the late 1980s. Mr Raymond himself has twice served as chairman of the climate change-denying Global Climate Coalition.

Even the federal government has found evidence the company has contributed directly to the increased cost of energy. The Government Accountability Office recently found that Exxon's 1999 merger with Mobil alone added four to five cents to the price of a gallon of petrol.

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